Deadliest day in Iraq in two years; 106 killed

In a statement, the leader of al Qaeda`s affiliate in Iraq warned that the militant network is returning to strongholds.

Last Updated: Jul 23, 2012, 23:44 PM IST

Zeenews Bureau

Baghdad: Two days after the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq declared a new offensive, a series of bombings and shootings killed at least 106 people across the Middle East country on Monday, officials said.

Today is the nation`s deadliest day in more than two years.

The coordinated attacks in 15 cities sent a chilling warning that al Qaeda is slowly resurging in the security vacuum created by a weak government in Baghdad and the departure of the US military seven months ago.

Though there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq declared last week a new offensive aimed at sowing instability across the country.

Iraqi militants have kept up a steady drumbeat of deadly attacks since the US pulled out in December, ending nearly a decade of war. They have sought to increase the chaos created by the deepening sectarian political crisis that pits Sunni and Kurdish leaders against Shi’ite political powers.

In one brazen assault on Monday, three carloads of gunmen pulled up at an Iraqi Army base early Monday near the northeastern town of Udaim and opened fire, killing 13 soldiers before escaping, two senior police officials said.

The deadliest attack, however, took place just north of Baghdad in the town of Taji, where a double bombing killed at least 41 people. The blasts were timed to hit as police rushed to help victims from a series of five explosions minutes earlier.

Monday`s violence bore most of the hallmarks of al Qaeda: the bombings and shootings all took place within a few hours of each other and struck mostly at security forces and government offices — favourite targets of the predominantly Sunni militants. And most of it happened in the capital and in northern areas the terror group used to control and where they now stand the best chance of regaining a foothold.

More than 200 people also were wounded in the onslaught on Monday, Iraq`s bloodiest day since a string of nationwide attacks on May 10, 2010, killed at least 119 people. Spokesmen for Iraq`s government and Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could not be immediately reached for comment.

Iraq`s Interior Ministry, which oversees the country`s security, condemned the attacks, calling them a "flagrant violation" of the ongoing Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It said security officials now planned to devise a new strategy to protect the public, but said complaints about the security gaps were "not useful”.

For years, al Qaeda in Iraq has been seeking to re-assert its might, although US and Iraqi officials insist it is nowhere as strong as it was when the nation came to the brink of civil war between 2006 and 2008.

The militant group made a series of missteps shortly afterward — targeting civilians, imposing overly strict Islamic discipline, alienating tribal leaders — that undercut its support in Iraq`s Sunni communities and helped lead to the widespread defection of fighters to groups allied with the US The flow of funding, arms and fighters slowed to a trickle, and al Qaeda in Iraq since has struggled, but failed, to command much power.

But the militant group`s local wing — known as the Islamic State of Iraq — is now seizing on the vacuum left by the Americans and Baghdad`s fragmented government.

In a statement issued on Saturday, the leader of al Qaeda`s affiliate in Iraq warned that the militant network is returning to strongholds from which it was driven from while the American military was here.

"The majority of the Sunnis in Iraq support al Qaeda and are waiting for its return," Islamic State of Iraq leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said in the statement that was posted on a militant website.

The local wing of al Qaeda, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, has long been at odds with al Qaeda`s central leadership. The global network`s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, has in the past criticized Iraq`s movement for targeting civilians. But earlier this year, al-Zawahri softened his stance, and included ISI militants in a network plea for fighters to join the Syrian uprising.

Most of the cities and towns pounded by bombs Monday are located in Sunni-dominated areas that nonetheless include sizable pockets of ethnically- and religiously-mixed populations.

Attacks struck the Baghdad suburb of Hussainiya, northeastern Diyala province, five towns around Kirkuk and in the oil-rich city itself as well as the northern city of Mosul — a former al Qaeda stronghold, police said.

Only one of Monday`s attacks occurred in undisputed Shi’ite territory: a bomb in the southern town of Diwaniyah that police said killed three people and wounded 25.

All of the casualties were confirmed by police and health officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to release the information.

(With Agency inputs)